Why Am I So Obsessed with Rom-Coms?
*This article contains spoilers for almost every major romantic comedy from 2018, and a few oldies too*
This year has been particularly outstanding for romantic comedies. It started with Love, Simon this spring, followed by Set It Up, and then this week’s smash hits Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. I’ve soaked up every single one and greedily looked forward to the next one’s release.
It’s true that romantic comedies are having a moment at the box office, but I’ve always loved them. When Harry Met Sally? Seen it a million times. Clueless? My favorite movie to watch when I’m sick. 13 Going On 30? Instant classic. The Proposal, Easy A, His Girl Friday, and Shakespeare in Love are all consistently in my screen rotation. I will watch two unassuming people fall in love in any place, any time period, in any way. Over and over.
Why do I love romantic comedies so much? On the surface, it would seem they are pure escapism. An easy-going, enjoyable, predictable way to spend my evening. Romantic comedies take rites of passage that we all go through and turn them all up to a highly idealized 11 out of 10. How do you wish your high school prom turned out? Wouldn’t it be nice if that coworker or best friend that you bickered with all the time was actually your soulmate? People in romantic comedies live in fictional versions of cities we know well, making it seem like every cute coffee shop or iconic landmark is just a ten minute cab drive away. In that way, rom-coms have more in common with the fantasy genre than they do with realistic fiction.
To be fair, I think that is totally true. There’s no shame in getting lost in a dream world for two hours, where love reigns supreme and high schoolers somehow have time to have breakfast dates before their first class. Of course, rom-coms are in the business of making people sigh to themselves, “I wish I had that.” But underneath the sugar-spun exterior, there’s a distinct authenticity that every really good romantic comedy needs to have in order to work.
The best romantic comedies preach that even when we are at our most genuine, it’s possible for us to be loved for who we are. Our truest selves are capable of being understood. That’s not fantasy. That’s vulnerability.
Think of all the romantic comedies that have the theme of mistaken or hidden identity, in its many shapes and forms. The love interest is always the one who sees the main character for who they really are, and still find themselves attracted. Josh knows that Cher is more than “just a ditz with a credit card” in Clueless. Patrick sees through Kat’s inclination to push people away in Ten Things I Hate About You. In Easy A, when Olive’s promiscuous persona brings her to her absolute lowest, Todd drives her home and admits his feelings for her.
“Why now? Why are you all of a sudden into me now?” she asks. “I don’t know. I haven’t overanalyzed it, like you’re about to,” he responds. Todd knew Olive before she had to make herself over into a modern Hester Pyrnne to survive high school.
I have a million more examples, because that’s the reason that I keep coming back to romantic comedies. It’s not that any of these couples are impossibly perfect matches for each other. It’s that when they look at each other, they look past the money, the red “A,” the tough posturing, or whatever is in the way, and they still see someone worth loving. While many of us will never find ourselves in these outrageous settings and situations, the fear of this kind of vulnerability is very real. It’s emboldening for us to watch characters overcome the dread of rejection. It’s validating to see characters come into their own and maintain successful relationships while doing it.
Nick doesn’t tell Rachel about his family fortune in Crazy Rich Asians, but they get to choose each other on a economy class flight. Simon and Bram hide behind their computers for most of Love, Simon, and see each other for the first time on a ferris wheel. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean and Peter enter a fake relationship for their own contrived purposes, and cultivate a real one in the process. Harper and Charlie, the couple at the center of Set It Up, even tell each other “you like because, and love despite.” The most beautiful moments of this year’s comedies are when the characters are allowed to come out of hiding, and the find love and acceptance waiting on the other side.
I also think this is why it’s so important that this year’s rom-com boom has more different faces and sexual orientations than we’ve seen before. Romantic comedies have been dominated by white actors since their inception. For the first time, non-white and lgbt couples are beginning to feel this cathartic emotional journey played out by people that look like them.
This shift can be traced back to The Mindy Project, a romantic comedy TV series that had Mindy Kaling, an Indian-American woman at the helm. Kaling used her character, Mindy Lahiri, to reclaim many romantic tropes that were previously only played out by white ingenues. Since The Mindy Project, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon were silver screen breakouts with The Big Sick, a romantic comedy about an interracial couple that is based on their own relationship. Since then, the ball has kept rolling. I hope it doesn’t stop anytime soon.
Because I will never not love to watch people fall in love over, and over, and now that the mic has been passed to voices that have previously been silent, there’s going to be so many new kinds and varieties of love stories to be told. Yet the authentic core of the genre is going to remain. Open yourself up, be true to who you are, and be proud of the person you’re becoming.
Somebody loves you for it.